At INCUS, our mission is to push boundaries in the sports of swim, bike and run, to celebrate sport and encourage people to engage in exercise in new ways. Our approach to this as a company is through creating new and better technologies that help people get more from training, while connecting people through better technology-driven experiences.
Our latest innovation is known as Mixed Reality™: a new connected fitness experience that combines outdoor sport with the virtual world, using livestreamed data in swimming, running and cycling.
Why did we develop Mixed Reality™?
In the early days of the pandemic back in 2020, we saw a changing future of swim/bike/run training and racing - mass participation events were being cancelled, global travel restricted, and a permanent shift to an online world of training and connectivity seemed inevitable.
Knowing that there’s no substitute for outdoor, human experiences, and that someday this would return, we set out to create a new future of connected sports technology that, in the ‘new normal’, brought the best of live, outdoor sport with the excitement, interactivity and connectivity enabled by the virtual world. We called this project Mixed Reality™.
How did we approach this task?
When beginning the product development journey, we talked first to our community; event organisers, clubs, coaches and athletes. The question we asked was “What barriers are there in connecting people across swim/bike/run?”.
It quickly became apparent that while rich data had the opportunity of bringing outdoor competition and new TV broadcasts to life, the biggest challenge was getting quality data in absolute real time, from the harsh environments of swim, bike and run, into the virtual world. If this could be achieved, coaches could provide more effective remote coaching, events could inspire and engage audiences across the world from a distance, and athletes could share experiences with their friends and colleagues in a carbon- and Covid-conscious future. We set out to explore how we could solve this, using frontier technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) mobile revolution and introduction of 5G across the globe.
This exploration brought together a unique consortium - INCUS as technology experts, major sports events organisers with a knowledge of livestream broadcast, who were looking for new ways to engage fans online, and the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK as a funding partner.
Building on solid foundations
The existing INCUS platform focuses on delivering outstanding, automated motion analytics and feedback in swimming and running. The NOVA hardware, artificial intelligence algorithms, firmware, apparel, servers and apps developed for this, provided a strong foundation to add additional connectivity features that would enable INCUS | Mixed Reality.
We built on top of our existing NOVA product and added 5G connectivity that allows the streaming of data in real time, to give people a connected experience without losing the joy of the outdoors. We added high-quality GNSS location, so athletes could roam free and enjoy connectivity in environments such as open water, where smartphones aren’t suitable for relaying the location traces.
We went further. We wanted to elevate existing fitness technologies such as heart rate monitors, blood glucose monitors, and power meters and enable them to work in the Mixed Reality world too. Building on existing Garmin and Apple Watch integrations from NOVA, the team built NOVA 2.0 to unite these new peripheral sensors to the livestream world, so that people could share their health stats in real time, even if the sensors couldn’t livestream on their own.
Challenges we faced when developing NOVA 2.0
Throughout the development journey, the INCUS team faced numerous engineering problems to solve. One of the biggest problems we had to overcome was a matter of real estate; how do we fit all the antennas for Bluetooth, 5G connectivity and onboard location, in addition to new processing chips and battery capacity, in a way that works together in such a small space?
For this, the team looked to the use of electricity and sound; two types of energy, used in an unconventional way.
The existing NOVA device is charged by a physical cable, sealed with a waterproof membrane inside. This component is relatively big, and if replaced by something smaller, offered valuable space that could allow a larger battery to be fitted in its place.
The team evaluated each method of powering the device, finally settling on a new charging solution that uses an ultra-slimline coil within the casing, and alternating electric signals to charge the battery wirelessly through the case of NOVA 2.0. This meant that, in addition to removing the need for waterproofing the charging port, enough space was made for the larger battery to be fitted, with no loss in performance.
The next hurdle was how to fix the electronics in place and seal the casing parts, while allowing as much internal space as possible, and keeping weight down. The team turned to an innovative method of sealing, known as ultrasonic welding. This uses sound energy to fuse the casing pieces together without heat, nasty chemicals or glues. It provides a clean and highly effective seal, which keeps the devices waterproof and strong, while reducing additional weight.
These innovations allowed 3x the battery capacity and additional processing power, additional antennas and chips to be added, all within the same physical dimensions, and only 6g heavier than the original NOVA electronics - a huge achievement.
The first tests of the NOVA 2.0
Liam Walton is our Validation Team Manager and played a central part in the development of NOVA 2.0. He facilitated the first real-word tests and demonstrations of the new product. “The goal of the first NOVA 2.0 demo was to organise something exciting for the athletes to participate in and for the spectators watching, but also to showcase the potential of the technology. We organised a relay between IRONMAN 70.3 Pro triathlete Rosie Weston and the INCUS Team who competed in a relay format.”
“The testing in the weeks before this race was focused on ensuring the functionality of NOVA 2.0 could actually make it happen. One of the main challenges of NOVA 2.0 was having to go back to the drawing board, having already perfected NOVA. One of the biggest difficulties came from having to test unsealed units, meaning we required waterproof aquapacs for open water testing. On top of this, the electronics boards had limited functionality due them being the very first prototype.”
“The early testing of NOVA 2.0 went really well and it was all looking promising. Due to holidays in the team, when things didn't work it was a bit of black box for the testing team as it either worked which was great or it didn't and we didn't know why. Amongst the team, we had to pull together to investigate these issues and understand more about what was going on.”
“We started to implement changes in our database and our front end which gave the testing team live information which explained when we'd lost location, or connection to the broker. These little changes made the progress of even the first version of NOVA 2.0 visible and meant that our first demo, our starting point, was one which was at a really good level and the only way is up from there. The challenges are part of the process, but overcoming them was definitely down to the versatility and passion of the team to ensure the tech could deliver on the goal of the demo.”
Where Mixed Reality is going
We’re incredibly proud of the early Mixed Reality experience that we've built and are now testing it in more exciting ways in the real world. The journey we are now on sees us building on these functional NOVA 2.0 units and working to improve manufacturability, while honing the software functionality to get the first seamless Mixed Reality experiences out for events for the 2023 race season.
INCUS is set to disrupt the world of endurance sport and connected fitness with major racing partnerships and Mixed Reality™ events to be announced for the 2023 summer season.
We can’t wait to see the response from trials alongside our community, and look forward to sharing more in due course.
Chris Ruddock, Founder of INCUS